The political unrest in the Middle East will bring about many strategic changes. The Gulf region, in its entirety, may become the centre of gravity, and an arena of entwined conflict. Indeed, some of the current crises in the region have already begun to overlap. After four weeks of protests in Syria, deep concern has taken hold of many Iranian leaders, fearing being struck by the “domino effect”. Iran’s leaders are now competing against time, attempting to forestall potential trouble by circumventing it, if possible.
Last Monday, two Iranian statements were issued, revealing a considerable amount of hidden confusion, and a series of miscalculations, which came as something of a shock to the regime. Leader of the Islamic Revolution Bloc in the Iranian Parliament Rauhala Husseineyan said: “Iran’s government should not hesitate to make military preparations as Saudi Arabia deploys its troops in Bahrain. Iran’s Foreign Ministry should exert the utmost effort, seek international action against Saudi Arabia, and request the aid of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).”
For his part, Chief Commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) General Mohammed Ali Jafari announced that the IRGC’s units and missions will soon be subject to structural reforms, and that any proposed changes would be based on analyzing all recent developments. Jafari urged the (IRGC) to be more accurate in their analysis of any given situation.
When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad set about quelling the strong and angry protests condemning his victory in the 2009 presidential elections, it was anticipated that Iran would attempt to stir up unrest in other countries, as a means of circumventing its internal problems.
This plan was indeed put into action and will continue with greater intensity in the coming era, as Iran attempts to cover up what is happening within the country. Over the past few days, a large number of senior conservative leaders have smuggled hundreds of millions of dollars abroad, fearing that the regime might collapse, and that the wave of protests sweeping across several Arab countries may prompt Iranian masses to take to the streets. This scenario could lead to popular uprisings with unprecedented violence, and if the security forces were to lose control, this could lead to the overthrow of the regime.
The mounting concern amongst Iran’s leadership is directly correlated to the bitter frustration the Iranian people are feeling, with regards to the ruthless repression they were subjected to, upon their reaction to the contentious reelection of Ahmadinejad in 2009. The see crowds in Tunisia and Egypt managing to topple two regimes which had ruled with absolute power for decades, in a manner similar to the ruling system in Iran.
This growing concern prompted senior political figures from the extremist camp, particularly those close to the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as well as commanders from the IRGC, to smuggle monetary sums from their accounts in Iran’s largest banks (Melli, Mellat, Sepah, Saderat), to Turkey, certain Islamic countries in Central Asia (Pakistan and Turkmenistan), and Southeast Asia (Indonesia and Malaysia).
According to financial sources close to Iran’s conservatives, three Turkish banks received a sum of 180 million dollars from the accounts of senior conservative officials at “Bank of Sepah”. Furthermore, a sum of 220 million dollars had been transferred to two banks in Malaysia and Indonesia respectively, from the accounts of Iranian officials at “Iran Melli Bank”, and “Saderat Bank of Iran”.
The money smuggled out of Iran constitutes part of the private fortune of officials in the conservative camp. This includes key figures in the regime’s economic establishments like the Central Bank of Iran, and some senior workers in humanitarian institutions directly affiliated to the office of Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, such as: “The Institution of the Persecuted and War Victims”, “The Institution of Martyrs”, “The Institution of Imam Khomeini for Relief” and “The Institution of Khurdad 15”. The abovementioned sources asserted that heads of several of those institutions, and not all of them, had smuggled their money out of Iran over the past few days, and that the board of directors of one institution in particular was deeply involved in the smuggling operation.
It seems that other conservative figures have requested clarification from the Central Bank of Iran, regarding the procedures for transferring money to non-Muslim countries in Southeast Asia, such as China (including Hong Kong), which enjoys strong financial relations with Iran and close ties with Iran’s banks.
Ever since the eruption of the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Iran’s leadership has tried to take advantage of the situation. For example, what could have been a genuine movement for national demands in Bahrain was sabotaged by Iran’s interference, via the sectarian card. Iran wants to use its influence and networks as much as possible to incite disturbances in Bahrain and Kuwait, as part of its campaign to destabilize the entire region.
As protests gained momentum in Bahrain, and with the invitation for opposition members to sit at the negotiation table, Iran resorted to the sectarian card in its attempt to cause successive disturbances, which might later on spread to other areas in the region. The Gulf States responded by dispatching military troops to Bahrain.
Iran does not hesitate to search for enclaves to incite, in order to keep Saudi Arabia in continual state of imbalance. However, it is careful not to do so in a way that would prompt Saudi Arabia to convince the US of the necessity of keeping its troops in Iraq.
Iran seeks to capitalize on the current crises by provoking as many disturbances as it can in the Gulf region, to force the US and Saudi Arabia to agree to a settlement based on Iranian terms, or to create a rift between the US and Saudi Arabia. This may compel Washington to negotiate with Iran in order to end the disturbances, before withdrawing from Iraq.
However, this will not happen because Iran, due to its interference in Bahrain and Kuwait, has made all the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) extremely cautious about its intentions. From here Iran is bound to have a hard time causing further disturbances across the region, because the majority of the Gulf States have come to realize that the Iranian threat targets all GCC countries.
For this reason, along with internal Iranian considerations, the Iranian leadership might switch to other arenas to try and exploit the Arab revolutions. But in every arena, it will be faced with problems, even in Iraq. If Iran tries to instigate sectarian violence, it will risk delaying the US withdrawal from Iraq, and undermine its relative stability with the West in the long run.
Iran might find the Yemeni situation a good opportunity to interfere. With the increasing erosion of Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime, and with the complications surrounding negotiations over the transfer of power, Saleh’s grip on power is sure to diminish until he controls no more than Sana’a. This would allow the uprisings already flaring in other areas to blaze even more. The Houthi rebels in the north are expanding their territorial rule in areas adjacent to Saudi borders. This necessitates that the Saudi leadership take decisive decision with regards to national security. Moreover, the revolution already taking place in southern Yemen and the resurrection of the old Islamic guard in the security apparatus opposed to Saleh, would both offer al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula an opportunity to widen its circle of operations.
Furthermore, when Saleh is ousted, which is a common goal for all Yemeni opposition groups, this will aggravate the situation. Each party, following the overthrow of Salah, will start demanding that their own priorities be met. Saudi Arabia, by virtue of its location and political weight, will be forced to work with these other parties in order to resolve the crisis. Thus Iran’s next plan, after Bahrain and Kuwait, might focus on Yemen.
Iran is obviously in a state of confusion, and the regime is racing against time. Senior Iranian officials are smuggling their money abroad. Iran’s two allies, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, have lost a lot, especially Hezbollah, having maintained a pro-Iranian position with regards to Bahrain at the expense of the Lebanese. As for Hamas, it is trying to secure a ceasefire, meaning that any Israeli incursion into Gaza would put more pressure on the new military regime in Egypt, which opened the door for a possible rapprochement with Iran. With regards to the Syrian regime, it is preoccupied with the “foreign plot” being hatched against it.
If the past few months have brought great surprises for the Arab world, then perhaps the coming months will come as a shock for the non-Arabs across the region.